Can I Say That Here?

Can I Say That Here?

I was recently leading a support group with 7th grade students. During one of our introduction activities, a girl started to share — and then paused.  She thought for a moment, and then said, “My answer is from The Bible.  Can I talk about that here?”

This is the constant question of students around us – students who live in an unsafe world – Is it okay to say what I feel here? Or the deeper version – Is this a safe place?

I opened it up to the group, and the consensus from the seven other students in the room was that she could share and not be picked on or made fun of in our circle, despite many of the others in the room having vastly different beliefs.

Seventh graders don’t typically ask if a group is safe unless they have spent time in spaces that aren’t.

Whether its mean girls, cyberbullying, or slut shaming; whether in families, in homes, or in social media fights about politics – our students are all too exposed.  They need safe spaces.

A safe space, by definition, is a place intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.

We can help create legitimately safe spaces with our students by implementing a few simple ideas:

  1. Set Norms. In all of our groups, our students walk through a process to set norms, or behavioral expectations, before ever being asked to open up and share. Norms provide member led guidelines for what behavior and attitudes are appropriate for the space. It’s the same at home – one of our norms is “you can say whatever you want as long as you say it with respect.”
  2. Don’t Assume. It’s easy to group people together, or to make assumptions about how someone is feeling. It’s much harder to ask clarifying questions such as, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “I heard you saying _____. Is that correct?”
  3. Listen more than you talk. Students (and adults) do not want to share when no one is listening or when they feel like they are competing with someone or something else.
  4. Be shock proof. In order for a space to be safe, students need to be able to share the good, the bad, and the ugly. If they think you can’t handle it, they won’t share.

 

In a world of constant exposure to the threat of “fails” going viral or intimate details being shared publicly, our kids need safe spaces.   More than ever, they need a place away from the videos, the snaps, and the cloud-connected threats of exposure.

They desperately need safe places. You can create those. And you can make the difference. Help make that space for others.

Beth Nichols is Teen Life’s Program Manager. With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, her perspective is invaluable.
5 Conversations to Have As School Starts

5 Conversations to Have As School Starts

I originally wrote this post two years ago with 3 conversation starters, but I want to revisit and add a couple of conversations that I believe will be helpful. So buckle up, school is here!

 


 

It is that back-to-school time of the year again!

I can hear the cheers and tears from the Teen Life office. Whether you are looking forward to getting back to a routine, wondering how your baby has grown into a high school senior, or are trying to figure out how your youth ministry is going to hold up against football season – you have a role to play in this upcoming school year!

Before teenagers start back at their middle or high schools, or the graduates leave home to start their college adventures, take time to have bold, encouraging conversations! You have an opportunity to help students set goals and think about where they want to be at the end of this 2018-2019 school year.

By having healthy conversations (check out this blog post), this school year can get off to a great start from the very first day! Here are some goals to help teenagers think about as they start school:

 

Grades

Grades are important. They help you graduate high school and get scholarships for college. They are a reflection of what you have learned and how hard you have worked at a particular subject.

However, grades don’t define your student or their worth. Students will put pressure on themselves about what kind of grades they should be making before you say a word. Instead of starting out the school year with a lecture about responsibility, finishing homework before video games, or the consequences for poor test grades, ask your student these questions:

  • What do you want your grades to look like at the end of this school year?
  • If you improved your grades and school work from last year, what would that look like?
  • How can I help you succeed this school year?

If you allow them to set their own goals, they will take more ownership in their school work. Instead of working toward your expectation, they will be stepping up to the standards they set for themselves – what better lesson could you teach a teenager? Help them set realistic goals and hold them accountable throughout the year with {friendly} reminders. Don’t expect your B student to make a 4.0 this school year, but encourage them to improve and continue to grow!

 

Friends

As you know, friends and peers have a huge influence during teenage years. They can impact grades, decisions, activities and attitude. While they are old enough to choose their own friends, as the adult, it is okay for you guide them in these choices. When it comes to friendships they have at school, start a conversation by asking these questions:

  • What relationship last year provided the most encouragement?
  • How do your friendships impact your performance at school or in extracurriculars?
  • Are their any relationships that provided drama or stress? What can you do to make that relationship healthier?

They probably aren’t going to react well if you ban them from hanging out with their best friend. But maybe you can open up the door for healthy conversation if you ask them to share first. Teenagers are smarter than we often give them credit for! If they are in an unhealthy relationship, let them talk through what that looks like and what they could do to either get rid of the friendship or set up healthier boundaries.

 

Extracurriculars 

It seems like today’s teenagers are busier than ever. Not only are they expected to go to school during the week and church on the weekends, but they also have to be involved in multiple extracurriculars, join school clubs and complete crazy amounts of service hours.

That is what colleges expect, right?

Extracurriculars are good and character building, but it is important for students to set goals not only on how to better themselves through these activities, but also how to find margin and rest in the midst of their busy schedules. Especially if you are talking to a teenager who is involved in multiple sports, activities or volunteer opportunities, encourage them to set healthy goals by asking these questions:

  • How many extracurriculars do you think you’ll have time for with school and other responsibilities?
  • How can you improve and use these experiences to help you in the future?
  • What can you do to make time for rest, friends and fun?

Have them prioritize their activities – there may be some new opportunities that arise this year, but if it passes what they can handle, it is not worth taking it on. They are teenagers, but they are still allowed to have fun! Please don’t allow your teenager to live like an adult. Help them take advantage of the freedom and fun that comes with adolescence. If they feel like they need to give up an activity to better balance their time, help them make the decision that is best for them (even if it means giving up that sport you love).

 

Physical, Mental, & Spiritual Health

Coming off the last conversation, it is so important for teenagers to take care of themselves! While culture is talking more about mental health, we cannot ignore it in our homes, churches or schools!

Please make sure you are having these conversations with your teen. Are they aware of signs of depression or suicide in themselves or friends? Are they motivated to improve in any of these areas? This conversation could be touchy or emotional, and is really three conversations, but don’t shy away from it! Start with these questions:

  • Do you feel like you have someone you can talk to about health? Especially mental and spiritual health? Who is that person?
  • What would you do if a friend came to you with a health concern?
  • What could you do this school year to improve in each of these areas? How could we help you accomplish your goals?

Be willing to ask your teen about the current state of their physical, mental, and spiritual health. Do they want to change anything? How can you help? Can you get them a gym membership or cook healthier meals? Could you help them seek the guidance of a counselor? Does one of their friends need a trusted adult to talk to? Can you start a family Bible Study? Consider what they need for themselves and from you.

 

Boundaries

Teenagers are trying to find identity and values at this phase of life. As the adults in their lives, it is our job to guide and teach while also giving them a safe space to try and sometimes fail. Teens won’t be perfect – I wasn’t at that age and definitely still make plenty of mistakes! However, we can help them set some boundaries in place to protect and direct as they gain the confidence and understand they need to truly succeed.

Maybe boundaries look like a curfew, or a time restraint on social media or Netflix. Maybe they want to limit how often they hang out with a certain friend or which event they want to avoid. Let them start the conversation and try not to jump in at the beginning with what you think is best. Here are a few questions to get this final conversation started:

  • What personal boundaries would help you succeed this school year?
  • How likely are you to say, “No!” when someone crosses your boundaries?
  • How do you think the boundaries we have set could be helpful? Are their any boundaries you have concerns about?

The beginning of school is a great time to talk about boundaries and expectations for the school year. Some rules will change over the years, and some will stay consistent. Some teenagers will even have intelligent boundaries that they want to set for themselves – give them that opportunity!

 


 

You have the power and the opportunity to help teenagers see their future and set goals to reach it. Ask good questions, listen with empathy and work together to set realistic goals that will allow them to not only enjoy but also take advantage of their teenage years. These are great conversations to have at the beginning of school, but we also encourage you to revisit these topics – ask how they are doing with their goals and if anything has changed. This is just a starting place!!

Are you willing to have these conversations? Share what goals the teenagers you talk to set! How will you help hold them accountable?

Karlie Duke was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is our Marketing & Development Director. She is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories.
A Guide to 13 Reasons Why

A Guide to 13 Reasons Why

* Warning: Spoilers of 13 Reasons Why Season Two and discussion of graphic content ahead.

 

The popular, controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why returned two weeks ago with Season Two. It was as interesting, graphic, provocative and disturbing as the first season. I can see why teenagers identify with it and parents fear it.

Last year, we received several questions and concerns around the first season of 13 Reasons Why. As an avid Neflix fan, I decided to watch the show to have a better idea of what teenagers were being exposed to and to help parents, teachers, and other helpers have positive conversation in the midst of a controversial series. After watching Season Two, I have a few thoughts, tips, and questions that I hope will help you have educated, positive, and relevant conversations with the teenagers in your life.

 

What is 13 Reasons Why?

13 Reasons Why is a Netflix Original Series about Hannah Baker, a high school student who chronicles her inner struggle and the 13 reasons why she chooses to kill herself on 13 cassette tapes. Season One revolved around these 13 tapes and the individuals (both teenagers and adults) who appear on the cassette tapes she leaves behind after her death.

On the show’s site 13ReasonsWhy.info, Netflix describes Season Two as follows:

13 Reasons Why Season 2 picks up in the aftermath of Hannah’s death and the start of our characters’ complicated journeys toward healing and recovery. Liberty High prepares to go on trial, but someone will stop at nothing to keep the truth surrounding Hannah’s death concealed. A series of ominous polaroids lead Clay and his classmates to uncover a sickening secret and a conspiracy to cover it up.

This show is suspenseful, entertaining, relevant, and revolves around issues many of our teenagers see in the halls of their school. While the series is set in a public High School, I believe the target audience ranges from middle school students to young adults. Not just teenagers are exposed to the situations portrayed.

To start a conversation about 13 Reasons Why, ask your teen the following questions:

  • Have you heard of the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why? 
  • Have you or any of your friends watched the show?
  • Would you be willing to talk about what you have seen or heard?

 

The Content of 13 Reasons Why

The content of 13 Reasons Why has been described as graphic, disturbing, dangerous, tragic, and intense. At the beginning of the first episode of Season Two, the actors of the hit series also give the following disclaimer:

13 Reasons Why is a fictional series that tackles tough, real-world issues, taking a look at sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide, and more. By shedding a light on these difficult topics, we hope our show can help viewers start a conversation. But if you are struggling with these issues yourself, this series may not be right for you, or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult. And if you ever feel you need someone to talk with, reach out to a parent, a friend, a school counselor, or an adult you trust, call a local helpline, or go to 13ReasonsWhy.info. Because the minute you start talking about it, it gets easier. 

The stated purpose of the show is to start conversations, but I want to make you aware that the conversations can come with a price when watching the show. 13 Reasons Why includes bad language (the F word is used often), female nudity, sex scenes and other mature content.

Besides this, it also portrays intense scenes and conversations about substance abuse and the detox process, rape, gun violence, anxiety attacks, suicide, self-harm, bullying, homelessness, pornography, and masturbation. The scene that many people have a problem with this season includes a graphic depiction of a teenage boy getting sodomized by three classmates.

If your teenager is aware of the show or has watched 13 Reasons Why, ask the following questions:

  • Who would you talk to if negative feelings were triggered by the content in 13 Reasons Why?
  • What scenes and conversations seemed accurately portrayed?
  • How could the show and/or characters have approached the situations differently?

 

Watching 13 Reasons Why

I am not the parent of the teen, and I am also not recommending 13 Reasons Why for you or your teen. However, if your teen has already watched the show or is going to watch it, please don’t let them watch it alone! I have heard from several teens that the content mentioned above can trigger negative thoughts and actions.

Melissa Henson, the Program Director of the Parents Television Council, warned parents and adults by saying:

For kids who are already at risk, who are being bullied or abused, the show may only serve to trigger those feelings and create dangerous real-life circumstances. We urge parents and schools to be alert and on guard in the weeks and months ahead.

I understand that we live in a dangerous world where teenagers have access to Netflix on their televisions, phones, gaming systems, laptops, and tablets. We would be naive to ignore this show by saying, “My child would never watch that.” I would encourage you to set guidelines, have a discussion, and ask your teen to watch it with an adult if necessary. This series might not be right for you or your teen, but whether you watch the series or not, it can start a positive conversation about what your teen is exposed to every week in the halls of their school.

At 13ReasonsWhy.info, there is a discussion guide that has helpful tips and questions for watching the show and engaging in conversation. Some of these include pausing to talk about issues in the moment or skipping scenes that feel uncomfortable. This could be a great resource if you choose to watch the show!

Start by asking:

  • What would change if you watched the show with an adult present?
  • How can this show start a positive conversation between teens and adults?

 

As I said above, many teenagers and young adults identify with the characters and situations portrayed in 13 Reasons Why. For this reason, it can be extremely dangerous. As teenagers see themselves and their friends in the characters, they may also seek the show for answers, guidance, or understanding. Let me be clear – while I do believe this show portrays relevant content, it is a scripted drama. It was made to draw people in, shock audiences, and make money. Some pieces may look like real life, but it is not real life.

A final note: For season one, we wrote a series of blog posts. This year, be looking for a series of podcast episodes that will take a deeper dive into the topics and issues raised in season two of 13 Reasons Why. Check out The Teen Life Podcast to subscribe so you won’t miss these episodes! If you have any other questions, thoughts, or concerns, please leave a comment or send an email to info@teenlife.ngo.

 

Karlie Duke was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is our Marketing & Development Director. She is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories.
The Girl Who Could Not Lift Her Head

The Girl Who Could Not Lift Her Head

I looked around the circle of students seated around the table and saw little eyes staring back at me in anticipation. All of these students were from different parts of the world and had arrived in America as children of immigrants and refugees. None of them spoke english, and for the most part, none of them spoke the same language. Maybe it wasn’t anticipation in their eyes but more of a fascination of an english-speaking white dude like me who had no idea how to interact.

As I looked around the table, I saw one student whose eyes were not on me. In fact, we couldn’t see her eyes at all. She had her head down in her arms and didn’t speak. While all of the other students seemed excited about being in one of our Teen Life groups, she was not. She wanted nothing to do with it, or so I thought. In a lot of other situations, I would have pressed a little harder to get her to participate. But this time I didn’t for some reason. I felt like something was going on in her life that she needed to just be in the group – on her terms.

So week after week, I would meet with this little “mini United Nations” of students, and we would muddle through trying to communicate and understand what was going on. Did I mention there were seven different languages represented in that group? So as you can imagine, the challenges were immense! And that little girl still didn’t talk.

Maybe they just enjoyed seeing me struggle. Perhaps there was some respite in the idea that a privileged white American like myself was at a disadvantage. I’m sure it was entertaining to see me try to relate to students who had either moved to America because of persecution or to find a better life. But little by little, we started understanding each other. And, little by little, that girl started to raise her head. While she didn’t participate much, every now and then, we would catch a smile.

We would do activities like “fist to five”. This one is easy – just ask someone any question and they get to answer using the numbers 0-5 to tell you how they feel about it. “Fist” is the worst (or zero) and “Five” is the best. So I could ask them, “How is school going today?”, and they had an easy way to answer – by just using their hands! More importantly, I could ask them what would have to happen to add one number to their answer. That’s where the good stuff started happening. And as the weeks went on, our little girl finally started to talk.

It turns out my little friend had endured significant emotional, sexual, and physical trauma in her life – unspeakable things had happened to her in her home country. She spoke Swahili and went by what I believe was a pseudonym. It doesn’t sound like she had much safety in her life, but she found it in our group by simply being there and listening – not being forced to do anything she didn’t want to do.

I remember the last day of group. I had a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around to a little girl who had her hair done up and a really pretty dress on. She said, “Hi Mr Chris!!” At first I didn’t know who she was. But then I realized it was my little friend from group who, just seven weeks earlier, could not bring herself to make eye contact with anyone. She was walking with confidence and seemed excited about the world she was coming into.

Later I found out she has become a leader at this little international school. She would give tours to new students and families to welcome them to this school that had made such a difference in her life.

Some of you connected with Teen Life might not fully understand the impact of what we do and how our incredible volunteers make a difference in the lives of students year after year. Stories like this abound as our groups offer safety to students who need a place for support. We are unique in this space and how we do it.

And, the demand is growing. We have new school districts in new cities contacting us asking, “How do we get these groups on our campus?” In order to fulfill these requests, we need your support. Consider donating to our spring fundraiser as we build our funding to meet the needs of our community – and to help others as well.

Giving is simple and your dollar goes a long way. Please click the link below to make a donation!

 

Chris Robey, Teen Life’s CEO, has worked with teens for over a decade and strives to help students see the best in themselves.
4 Lessons From Career Day

4 Lessons From Career Day

Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at my son’s school to 5th graders about their future career. Something I am sure they were excited about. Really though, they were! They expressed interest and asked good questions.

My goal was to share with them what all I had done and then leave them with some ideas for how they can continue on a path that will help them choose a meaningful career (or careers). The reality is that any job you do can have meaning, and I chose to focus on that. I listed my first 10 jobs for them. These jobs included: roofing, small engine repair, a sporting goods store, Pep Boys and more. I learned things at each of these jobs. Maybe not as much at the time, but looking back, I can see that I learned important lessons.

The small engine shop was my first job. At age 12, I started learning how to fix small engines and enjoyed riding the go-karts around to “test” them. The lesson I learned though is that not everyone knows how to run a business. That guy still owes me money. I have moved on, but the lesson still remains. I want to work with people who will prioritize taking care of those they are partnered with.

The summer I spent roofing, I learned that is not something I wanted to do the rest of my life. It was hot and hard, and I knew I wanted to get a degree and work in the A/C as much as possible.

At Pep Boys, I worked the parts counter. Looking back I realize that what I was doing was helping people get to work and take their kids to school because the parts they bought helped fix their car or keep it running. These are important things when you rely on that car to get you where you need to go.

Each of these lessons were meaningful but mostly in the way that I am looking back on them. Maybe you reminisce the same way and can still learn from things that happened years ago. But what about your teenager? Likely they are going to go through a similar process of learning years later about what they went through. So what can we help them learn now? I shared some ideas with the 5th graders, but these ideas also translate well to the teens you work with.

Keep school a priority. I remember not liking English, especially in high school. I felt I had enough of those classes and didn’t need to keep taking an English class every semester. I was tired of English, especially writing. I felt it was a waste of time because I had no intention of being a writer. I’ll give you a second for the irony of typing that to sink in. Besides this post, I am also writing donors, partner organizations and school administrators. I write those people using a persuasive style to help them understand why we should work together and how our program makes an impact for teenagers. I would tell teenagers today that you never know what skills may become important later in life.

Try different things. In addition to what I listed above, I also worked as a painter, at a gas station changing the oil on cars, and as a waiter (for 4 days). Each of my job experiences helped me learn something about how to handle what I am doing today or how I do not want to handle what I am doing today. We should all encourage teens to try different things. These years are formative and a great opportunity to try things that can teach basic skills to help them build on what they are learning.

Keep Reading. This is possibly the most important one. I spent too many years not reading, and these last few years, I have spent as much time reading as I can. Encourage your teen to pick up books, listen to them, sit at the library and read. Fiction, nonfiction, historical, biographies. All of these can be beneficial. I think the important thing is to stay focused on 2 areas. Reading things we both agree with and disagree with are important. Both of these help us grow and because we are reading, we don’t have to worry about emotions getting in the way. We get to simply learn, grow, and better understand how to engage the world around us.

Find unique solutions to old problems. Lastly, I shared that many problems the world is facing are not new. They have been around since humanity began. They are similar because most of them are grounded in relationships. The difference is teenagers today have a unique opportunity to address problems in a new way. I believe, and I hope you do too, that each of us is different and unique enough that we can bring a new perspective to these old problems. I believe that youth today will find solutions no one has ever thought of, and as the adults around them, we need to encourage those ideas and help them carry them out.

 

I hope this not only helps your teenager, but also you as you have conversations about the future. If we can have a perspective that is future focused, it helps us engage in ways that encourage rather than squash the creativity and uniqueness inside each student.

Ricky Lewis is our CEO and has been with us since the beginning. As a father of 7, he seeks to help parents and their kids Live Life Better.